JUNE 16, 2019
JOHN LANGAN IS a Leviathan of modern weird fiction. His Bram Stoker Award–winning novel The Fisherman hooked the biggest One That Got Away since Moby-Dick and landed it gasping on the shores of contemporary horror, an act of imaginative daring equal to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. His 2013 short story collection, The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, took one cliché horror trope after another — zombies, vampires, ghouls, werewolves — fed them kicking and screaming into a literary blender, and hit frappé. It’s hard to imagine the genre ever being quite the same after these publications. Sefira and Other Betrayals is his first short story collection since those extraordinary achievements. How does it measure up in such company?
More or less continuously, it turns out. In the Story Notes concluding Sefira, Langan describes the rationale for Sefira’s subtitle:
As I reread the stories I’d written in the years since completing those in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky, I realized that five of the stories returned relentlessly, even obsessively, to the theme of betrayal, examining it in a variety of contexts […] It was clear that my third collection should take betrayal as its focus.
Referencing the noir influences that led to Sefira’s second story, Langan writes that “the more I thought about it, the more the idea of betrayal came to seem central to noir, the great dark engine rumbling away beneath the surface of its various plots, carrying its assortment of characters to their mutual doom.” What draws Langan so powerfully to the theme of betrayal isn’t immediately clear, although, as he states, it comes at least partially from years of teaching Dante, with the Inferno’s focus on “the sin of betrayal as the most serious in his vision of Hell.” With Langan’s track record, that might lead a reader to hope for a vision of a Titanic Satan, mired in the ice of Cocytus and chomping on history’s arch-traitors. We do get one Titan, but not quite like that.
The theme of betrayal is hardly absent from Langan’s earlier work. In The Fisherman, Langan’s protagonist declares the following after a string of encounters with a succession of sanity-shattering monstrosities: “That the man I counted my closest friend was about to inflict grievous harm on me, if not kill me outright, was the most monstrous thing I had encountered yet this strange, awful day.” This reads very much like a larger-scale version of the moral twist at the heart of the story “Renfrew’s Course” in Sefira. Sky features “City of the Dog,” Langan’s relensing of H. P. Lovecraft’s ghoul stories, which manages not one betrayal, but two.
One other characteristic of Langan’s work fully and thankfully on display in Sefira is his tendency to articulate extensive fictive topoi and rationales. In “At Home in the House of the Devil,” Langan can’t even take a relatively brief detour into Calvinist morality without developing his own theodicy. The fully worked-out imaginative structures and mythologies of his tales help distinguish him from the vaguer writers of modern weird fiction, who seem too often content with obscure threats and mere hints of the strange, a thoroughness which gives his narratives that much more substance and bite. How many writers would use a brilliant horror story to rationalize a monster doing the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to do, as in “The Wide, Carnivorous Sky”? Many weird fiction writers leave their enigmatic mysteries hovering in what Thomas Carlyle called “the impalpable Inane.” Langan, in contrast, succeeds time and time again in wringing an extra sense of wonder, awe, and, indeed, horror from an explicit mapping-out of his terrors. He doesn’t so much create a mythos, since he tends to either invent or retell new myths for each story, and carry-over from one to another is usually pretty limited (although he often revisits his native upstate New York). Perhaps he succeeds so well because he has an imagination and an intellect equal to his purpose.
But Langan’s discursive tendencies don’t always deliver equal results. The stories in Sefira sometimes cohere on the page without the precise discrimination that enabled him to pull off a huge balancing act like The Fisherman. In Sefira’s title story, the climactic and literally knife-edge confrontation is interrupted for an extended flashback to the heroine’s dojo days. A woman faced with impregnation and contamination by her mutated husband takes time out to reflect on their marriage. The problems with pace and balance in this volume correlate to a slackening of narrative tension; there’s a sense of propulsive urgency in Langan’s earlier shorts missing this time round.
Ironically, however, the problems with pacing and tension in some of Sefira’s stories may stem from their greater humanity. Every narrative in Sefira has a fully realized first- or third-person protagonist, unlike the tales in Sky, which frequently jump-cut between multiple viewpoints and even dip into the second person with sometimes almost voyeuristic relish for the horrific events unfolding. That may make for disquieting reading, but disquieting reading is the hallmark of excellent horror. “If, as I believe it does,” Langan argues,
horror addresses itself to those moments when the bottom drops out from underneath us, when the epistemological ground on which we think we stand so firmly crumbles beneath us, then one way in which we might experience this is in our relationships to others, particularly those to whom we’re closest.
He gives those crumbling relationships and individual personalities far more time this time round, however compassionately and humanely, than the structural fireworks and ferocious Grand Guignol scenarios of Sky. That takes him closer to the territory of writers like Nathan Ballingrud or even Stephen King. Yet Langan is at his best, I believe, his most inspired and intoxicating, when he reaches beyond the personal and interpersonal.
So far, I’ve hinted at structural tactics and something like a postmodernist sensibility in Langan’s prose. Self-awareness is another of Langan’s great secrets, but his is not a self-awareness in the sense of posturing self-regard. Whether thanks to his day job in literary academia or not, Langan seems peculiarly and beneficially aware of what his own writing is up to. Some tales qualify as literary experiments by a master alchemist, but they are never self-indulgent. The Fisherman, for the lengthy and circuitous route it takes to reach its destination, doesn’t meander or get diverted into tributaries. It’s also one of Langan’s most successful exercises in making the act of storytelling itself the essence of the story. Even in a book so long and complex, with so many interweaving narrative threads, he saves up one last grotesque reveal until the very last line. The Fisherman is “a fishing yarn gone feral,” while “Technicolor” is a swatch of Poe gothic arabesque interwoven with its own telling.
Sefira doesn’t push the structural envelope anywhere near as far as some of the stories in Sky, such as “The Revel,” with its multitudinous points of view, or “How the Day Runs Down,” with its faux-playscript narrative perspective. In the earlier volume, Langan’s technical brilliance made even the most tired horror clichés seem fresh and alive. Conversely, the more straightforward techniques of Sefira rather undersell even his most original and imposing supernatural conceptions. The Fisherman’s Apophis fills an entire skyline; Sefira’s Kronos gets squeezed into a hotel corridor. I could be wrong, and my preference for technique over character could be just a personal quirk, but I suspect it’s the sheer incandescent artistic imagination that made Sky and The Fisherman true landmarks in modern weird fiction. Sefira, in contrast, seems rather more an essential but intermediate waypoint in an onward journey.
That said, I confidently expect Langan’s journey to lead to more high points in the future. If Sefira doesn’t show him quite at the top of his form, I’m sure he’ll be back up there soon enough. Technical brilliance delivers an addictive thrill for the writer as well as the reader, and it’s also something that a writer as gifted and self-aware as Langan can identify in his own work and get a handle on. The world is crying out for another Leviathan, from an author who’s already given us one. Even in current climes, as the genre is strip-mined for Hollywood blockbuster material, the weird has rarely been more wonderful.